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ALBUM FEATURE: Roly Witherow – Ballads and Yarns

by Chris

Ballads and Yarns is the work of Roly Witherow, a film and TV composer who, according to his website, has a “diverse
compositional voice that includes orchestral, electronic and folk influences”. I don’t know about you but to me that sounds like the recipe for an experimental contemporary folk release, so let’s delve in and see what we’ll uncover.

The first track of the album is called “Foreword”. Roly’s foreword is unique in that not a single word gets uttered. Instead you’re met by a slow, rising orchestral sample that fades into the minimal yet atmospheric sound of the electric guitar. Is this a sign of what’s to come?

The next track is “Lord Franklin”, a haunting ballad written by A.L Loyd in the 1950’s, though I’m sure many of you know of Pentangle’s far more modern version. It starts with the guitar leading the way for a brief moment, then comes to an abrupt stop as the sound of Roly’s voice takes over.

“With a hundred seamen he sailed away
To the frozen ocean in the month of May
To seek that passage around the pole
Where we poor sailors do sometimes go.”

The chilling lyrics set the mood, that’s for sure. A wise choice of ballad by Roly, who manages to portray the isolation and struggle of these bold seamen faring their way through the Northwest Passage. Roly has a knack for making a little go a long way, his vocals are gentle and his guitar playing is modest but elegant. So far, so good! I can’t help thinking that “Lord Franklin” was the real foreword that this album needed, because what a grand tune it is!

A great start to the album, which leads us to the track, “Wedding Song”. This is a bit different than what we’ve heard so far. It starts with a sample of the shanty “Good Morning Ladies All”, followed by deep ritualistic drumming. The beginning of the song has the energy of a movie soundtrack, but it doesn’t last long, and maybe that’s the point; Roly’s compositions are incredibly varied and characteristic. As we bid adieu to the orchestra, the soft strums of the guitar takes its place to accompany the drums, and then the vocals kick in:

“Far from these shores where the trees grow red
She grew but from a seed
And under the gaze of the sun and the stars
She made her way over the seas.”

Roly’s vocals through the song have an underlying burdened sound, complimenting the woeful downtempo instrumentation. About 5 minutes in, the song takes on a more upbeat and hopeful sound and Roly gives himself room to experiment with some electronic elements. All in all “Wedding Song” is a beautiful tune and a great testament to Roly’s capabilities as a songwriter. But what comes next will set in stone my love of this album.

 Artwork by Roly Witherow’s wife

This next song has been performed by a wealth of artists, including some of my favourites such as Louisa Jo Killen
(formerly Louis Killen) and Ewan MacColl. Roly’s rendition of “Row Bullies Row” is folk-rock to the core, knocking the door down with distorted tremolo picked guitars while the bass does the ground work on the rhythm. It’s a really raw and earthy version and I’m thoroughly enjoying it. It’s reminiscent of Steeleye Span in the 70’s but Roly has his own unique sound that seems to be a result of his willingness to explore beyond genre.

But can Roly’s exploration lead to “too much of a good thing”? The fifth track of the album, “Carousel”, is truly a merry-go-round kind of a tune that’s both dizzying and incredibly intriguing at the same time. It’s a jolly little melody but also terribly disturbing due to its detuned and chaotic nature. I imagine this is the kind of soundtrack that would have done exceptionally well in Robin Hardy’s 1973 film “The Wicker Man”. I am reminded of the scene where the whole town dresses up with masks, dancing ceremonially and then makes their way up to the hillside to finally ensure their harvest by burning the devout Christian police officer. That may be a little too descriptive, but there you are! This is by far the one song on the album with the most electronic elements.

There are now three tracks left and though I could go in depth with each of them, I decided against it as I want to leave something for the imagination. But before I conclude this review I feel that it’s only appropriate that I include the final track on the album, because it’s one of Roly’s originals. It’s called “Paean to Earthly Things”

“Watchful, the orb above rises and falls,
Engines and pistons they hum to our tune.
The axel grinds swiftly but the wheel never stalls,
Everyone spinning their fate on this loom.

Where we’re bound,
Where we laugh and we cry,
Where we’ll all dissolve into the ground.”

The lyrics are absolutely beautiful. Very appropriate for the times that we live in. “Paean to Earthly Things” is a reminder of how small and insignificant we really are in the grand scale of this universe. We live in an age of stress and anxiety, most of us spend the majority of our lives trying to get somewhere as quickly as we can, and sometimes we need to be grounded. Maybe it’s time to stop taking everything so seriously?

So, to conclude: Roly is a fantastic artist and songwriter with a talent for taking traditional tunes and performing them in a modern context. As a composer he’s a bit of a daredevil, not afraid to go his own way and that may scare away some purists, but if you can open your mind then I think “Ballads and Yarns” will be the kind of album that’ll stick with you.

Click here to buy “Ballads and Yarns”

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